>Back on the horse


The ASAL conference is on at the moment. I haven’t been to one of these since 2006, when I was a few months pregnant with Evie. It felt very strange to be there last time, in Perth, when I was on the cusp of not-being-there (work-wise) for about a year because of maternity leave, etc. This time, rushing in from the limo (not a real limousine, just in case you were thinking that us academics live so high on the hog) from Sydney Airport, I walked into the uni conference centre and immediately recognised half a dozen people and had things I needed/wanted to say to them. As I registered and sorted out my things, I met a couple of people I’d only known through email. It felt quite buzzy and I was quickly swept up into the schedule, even as I was scarfing down my lunch.

The AASRN has a one-day stream at this ASAL, tomorrow (1 July) – what this means is that Jacquie and I have convened a day’s programming that will run tomorrow (along with other concurrent sessions) and with our keynote, Merlinda Bobis, heading up the morning.

I will admit to being variously grumpy and resigned about the association at different points in my career. When I was a postgrad, it seemed the done thing to pick holes in what everyone else was doing and moan about the lack of attention to X topic. This didn’t change much for many years (and at times it has been a very justifiable whinge). I’ve always felt a somewhat token Asian at the conferences and, even though I know it’s a blunt instrument and often counter-productive, I sometimes would sit in a room and count the non-white faces. This never took long and, quite frankly, still doesn’t take long. Does this actually matter? I’ve wondered about that. There are topics I find tired and passe and they bob up annually. There are approaches that are pedestrian and solid and…yeah. There is a clique, there are ‘establishment’ academics, issues often drown in a predictable chorus and I’ve been on the receiving end of numerous (sometimes very funny) cross-cultural gaffes. On this latter point, I should clarify that I don’t think I need anyone to be ‘cross-cultural’ to communicate with me. It was more that my Asian-ness seemed to bring forth certain behaviours. The baldest situations I’m thinking of involved:

  • Someone thinking I was someone else, and carrying on a conversation with me with that presumption intact, despite my name-tag and patent confusion. This wouldn’t be such an issue if there were heaps of Asian women in the humanities in Australia (would it?). This not being the case…well, I did wonder.
  • Someone decked out in Chinoiserie and announcing their new research area in dress and conversation. In its full form, which I’m not putting on the interwebs, it’s damn funny. Disturbing, but funny.

All my cynicism about the association aside (and I know that portions of that cynicism are knee-jerk rather than tested – that is, if I actively intervened in the organisation and tried to usher in change, I feel that it would have been received relatively well. But, instead, what I’ve done is sit around and waited for change to happen, with little real ‘push’, and have been disappointed that it hasn’t), I realised anew today what a great bunch of thinkers that group has. The training and expertise we gain in the humanities is difficult to quantify, but seeing the group in full flight during good discussions even warmed the cockles of my nay-saying heart. That’s not to say that there isn’t a very generous helping of sniping and back-handedness that also gets served up occasionally. It is, after all, academia.


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